The Height Of The Eiffel Tower
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
August 14, 2010
Like any one-person show, The Height of the Eiffel Tower, playing at the East 4th Street Theater as part of the New York International Fringe Festival this year, began as a nail-biter. The beginnings of plays are always terrifying for an audience—after all, they're trapped in a room with them for at least the better part of an hour—but even more so when solo performances are involved. We put ourselves into the hands of one person and hope that the risk pays off, because there really is nowhere else to turn. Luckily, after a few minutes of watching Morgana O'Reilly tornado her way through the members of one lovably dysfunctional New Zealand family, I slowly moved my nails away from my teeth, happy to spend some time with this whirling dervish of an actor.
The play centers around an afternoon visit paid by a woman named Rachel to the home of the above-mentioned family's matriarch Terri. Rachel and Terri were friends at "uni" but it seems that while Terri's life has been consumed with raising her four children and attending to her inattentive husband, Rachel's career has taken off. While the idea is far from original—do we really need another play about a woman not being able to have both a family and career?—O'Reilly's characters, created without costumes or props, are so specific and lovingly realized that the message, if there is one, becomes secondary. This is most evident in sections where her characters are not speaking with one another and can just...speak. The school speech that Terri's son Nathan gives on the sex life of New Zealand's many species of fish is at once hilariously endearing and terribly painful to watch. In Nathan, O'Reilly captures both the excitement of an astoundingly bright and curious child to share information he considers immeasurably fascinating and the terror that he feels in sharing it, knowing that his classmates will probably make him pay for it later. Meeting Nathan should be reason enough to see this show.
This is not to say there aren't bumps in the road. I wondered why we never meet Rachel, as central as she is to Terri's story. Also, many of the multiple character dialogue scenes suffer from what most one-person shows suffer from. As hard as O'Reilly and her director and co-creator Abigail Greenwood try, there are moments when clarity of character and action fade and blend in the interest of pace or emotion. In its quieter moments though, the play is wonderfully alive, such as a late scene between Nathan and Anna-Louise, Terri's newly pregnant teenage daughter, that is familiar without being cliched. It showcases O'Reilly's ability to break beyond the one-dimensionality of so many solo shows and give us something human, while still being funny. And The Height of the Eiffel Tower is certainly funny. Did I forget to say that?
It is also certainly a play. That may seem like a strange thing to write, but so many solo shows are not plays, but are, rather, excuses for performers to spend an hour talking about themselves to a captive audience. It's refreshing to encounter a writer and director who seem to want to look beyond themselves and simply tell a story. Granted, the story is not perfect, but neither are the people in it. Good news for anyone willing to risk meeting them.